Students, U. make voices heard at State House

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Isaac Belfer ’08 and Sarah Raab ’08 got their marching orders: their target was Rep. Edwin Pacheco, D-District 47.

“He’s the youngest member of the House, he was elected just out of college,” Jennifer Stevens, an organizer for Marriage Equality RI, told them as they stood in a corner of the Rhode Island House of Representatives chamber on April 5. An undecided vote on the bill that would allow gay marriage in Rhode Island, the 24-year-old Pacheco might open up more to two of Stevens’ youngest lobbyists.

So Belfer and Rabb walked across the House chamber to ask Pacheco about his views on the bill. Afterwards, they agreed it had gone well.

“I think he liked that we were young,” Raab said.

About three to five students from the Brown Democrats walk down College Hill to the State House every Wednesday afternoon. They go there to help MERI gain support from state legislators for a marriage equality bill, a form of which has been introduced every year but one since 1997.

“It’s a great thing to do. It’s fun and interesting,” said Belfer, who leads the lobbying program as chair of the Local Politics Committee. But, he added, he doesn’t really consider it lobbying.

“It’s nothing Jack Abramoff-style,” he joked, referring to the former lobbyist whose illegal activities have prompted calls to crack down on lobbying in the federal government.

But Stevens had told the Brown students and a group of other volunteers before heading into the chamber that they shouldn’t be afraid of the word.

“I know this is kind of a scary term, lobbying, but it’s just talking to people,” she said. “They happen to be elected, but they’re still people.”

The Dems began their lobbying program in 2003, when the Local Politics Committee was created to focus on marriage equality and environmental issues at the state level, according to Seth Magaziner ’06, former president of the Dems.

But since then, Belfer said, the project has focused almost exclusively on marriage equality.

“We honestly don’t have the manpower to diversify and work with several campaigns at once,” he said. “We have just one issue but we attack it from a number of different angles.”

Belfer said the main goal of their lobbying efforts is to gauge support for the bill.

“It really is mostly information gathering,” Belfer said. “Based on the information we gather through our lobbying, they can identify individual representatives who can be swayed.”

Stevens said she appreciates the work put in by the Brown students.

“They’re up here every week. They have done more lobbying than any other group,” she told The Herald. “They’re great.”

“Even though they might not be registered to vote here, they talk to East Side legislators, and having a group here every week makes sure (legislators) can’t forget,” she added.

Belfer said he gets a lot out of lobbying, especially in a small state like Rhode Island.

“You can walk out of your dorm and walk onto the floor of the General Assembly and have representatives listen to you. It could only happen in Rhode Island,” he said.

Promoting Brown’s interests

But students aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the State House’s proximity to campus to make their voices heard. The University also lobbies there on a regular basis.

“What’s important is that the University’s interests are followed and that the University’s interests are heard when the University has a particular concern or is thinking about taking a position on a bill of interest,” said Darrell Brown, director for state and community relations.

That can be most effectively done, he said, by lobbying in two different ways. One is through the Rhode Island Independent Higher Education Association, a coalition of eight private colleges and universities in Rhode Island.

“A good portion of our lobbying activities are through RIIHEA,” he said.

The University also makes its voice heard, he said, through registered lobbyists. According to lobbying records filed with the office of the secretary of state, the University has two registered lobbyists – Brown and Peter McGinn, a professional lobbyist with Tillinghast Licht, a Providence law firm.

McGinn – who also represents Anheuser-Busch Companies and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco USA – has “been with Brown for a long time,” Brown said. Together, he added, they “monitor legislation that may affect Brown or that may interest Brown.”

McGinn said he has worked with the University for over 40 years as a lobbyist and litigator, but he declined to comment further, citing attorney-client privilege.

When examining legislation, Brown said, the goal is always to further the University’s interests.

“The basic criterion is always, ‘What is in the best interests of the University?'” he said. “Obviously we are very concerned about any legislation that would affect faculty, affect students and also legislation that would have an impact on the city … and have an indirect impact on us,” he added.

Brown said his office consults with “different elements of the administration” before deciding to take action on any specific bill or issue.

“We consult with other members of the University administration to seek their input before big decisions are made,” said Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations.

After a decision is made on whether to support or oppose the bill, Brown said, “we go about the business of reaching out to the sponsors of the bill, we reach out to the committee chairs” to make the University’s position known, a process that includes sending letters and attending relevant hearings.

According to lobbying records, the University made its presence felt on four specific issues in 2005: a ban on euthanizing animals with carbon monoxide gas, a bill requiring colleges and universities to teach new students about the proper use of credit cards, a ban on metal bars on residence hall windows and a tax of $100 per student intended to raise money for municipal services. The University opposed all four bills.

The carbon monoxide bill, Brown said, was intended to reform animal shelters and not affect research labs. Brown said the sponsor had no trouble modifying it to exempt local colleges and universities, creating an amended version then supported by the University. The bill was passed and has become law.

“Oftentimes, the original intent of a bill will have unintended consequences,” he said. “Brown is a research institution and the euthanizing of the animals was not a bill that was intended to impact universities or Brown in particular.”

Brown described the credit card bill as an old one the University has long opposed, and it did not pass. The ban on metal bars on dorm windows was a fire-safety measure “some would argue was directed at Brown,” he said, but after informing the bill’s sponsor that the University plans to replace its current window bars with ones that can be opened from the inside, the bill stalled.

The student tax was more contentious. Critics say the University’s tax exempt status, combined with its large property holdings in Providence, drive up taxes on the remaining property to cover the cost of municipal services. In lieu of taxes, Brown pledged in 2003 to pay approximately $50 million to the city over 20 years, in conjunction with the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College and Johnson and Wales University.

A bill introduced last June sought to place a tax of $100 per student on local colleges and universities to reimburse municipalities for their use of municipal services, but the measure lacked enough support to pass out of committee. Chapman told The Herald last October that President Ruth Simmons sent a letter to legislators opposing the tax, and University officials attended hearings on the bill.

Instead, the bill’s supporters passed an alternative measure setting up a special commission to study the issue and give a report by March 1. According to Brown, that commission never met.

“There has not been any movement,” he said. “We’re happy about that.”

So far this year, Brown said, the University has done little lobbying, though he noted it is “still early in the process” and “anything can happen.”

Chapman said the University is closely monitoring a bill stating that agreements that give employers the patent rights to their employee’s inventions – such as the University’s intellectual property – “shall not apply to an invention that the employee developed entirely on the employee’s own time without using the employer’s equipment, supplies, facility or trade secret information.”

If passed, the bill would overturn the University’s intellectual property policy, adopted unanimously by the faculty last May. Several professors were opposed to the policy at the time, and Chapman said several faculty members have pushed for the current legislation.

In general, Brown said, the University has a good relationship with the state government.

“We have a good relationship with the General Assembly … at the leadership level as well as the committee level,” he said. “We’re received really well when we go over there and I think that’s a product of how we conduct our lobbying. We’re not an omnipresent presence up there, nor should we be.”

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